I Fought the Law
Gravitating into my book-holding and keyboard-typing fingers of late have been a series of texts that articulate modern and contemporary poetry and poetics to issues of habeas corpus, governmentality, the state (particularly the judicial branch/state-sanctioned executions), and human rights—perhaps not so surprising in a country engaged in ongoing pre-emptive wars. I wanted to say a few words about four items I’ve picked up and put down and picked up again over the past few months.
1,) The Jamail Center for Legal Research at the University of Texas School of Law has made available online, via the journal Legal Studies Forum, Benjamin Watson’s important essay on Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony: The United States (Recitative). Reznikoff’s work has fundamentally shaped my own thinking about poetics, governmentality, and written/spoken discourses (right up there in my book with post-Marat Sade Peter Weiss and everything by Anna Deavere Smith). Watson’s essay breaks a path for legal-literary scholars to engage in the important scholarship yet to be done on Reznikoff’s exacting use of legal cases in each of his 450+ “eyewitness accounts in verse”. Watson’s paper initiates this process and, importantly for future scholars, provides a table of cases (including Reporter Citation, Case Name, and Testimony Citation) in which “Reznikoff's notes and manuscripts provide enough information to establish links between… cases and poems, which comprise about one-third of the published total.” Here’s a bit of what it looks like in Watson’s appendix:
30 A. 681 (1894) Bodee v. State .....I, 235, 11
33 A. 1017 (1896) Yoders v. Township of Amwell .....I, 172, 1
39 A. 33 (1898) Perret v. Perret .....I, 199, 11
41 A. 1083 (1898) American Tobacco Co. v. Strickling .....I, 238, 2
42 A. 60 (1898) Maryland Steel Co. v. Marney .....I, 244, 11
44 A. 524 (1895) Tyler v. Concord & M.R.R .....I, 248, 2
44 A. 809 (1898) Buch v. Amory Mfg. Co. .....I, 242, 8
2.) While I’ve mentioned the volume before, I just want to add one additional point about Marc Falkoff’s Poems from Guantanamo Bay: The Detainees Speak, which I taught in three unique and distinct classes of students last semester (leading up to a visit to the Twin Cities by Falkoff and Flagg Miller, who translated some of the poems and wrote a fine preface to the book.) Dan Chiasson’s New York Times review speaks volumes to what seems to me to be the unfortunately omnipresent critique of politically-engaged poets/poetry by non-political writers in this country. In fact, I can’t think of a single student (some graduating nurses, some hoping to be future lawyers or social workers or scientists, some even struggling to be poets) who, after reading Falkoff’s book, didn’t bemoan Chiasson’s harshly dismissive review. I mean, would the Times allow a reviewer to use phrases like “ersatz-gangsta patois,” “teenage sonneteer,” and “exactly zero literary interest” in a review of any mainstream, not-outwardly political American poet? Or are the phrases instead more akin to the groupies of one band critiquing another, like when Toto fans and Joy Division fans meet in some alley, circa 1979?
3.) And speaking of newspaper literary reviewers (while still on the subject of legal-literary poetry and poetics), I want to make a shout out to R.D. Pohl, whose work for the Buffalo News over the years has always been crisp, insightful, dedicated, and engaging. Unlike the foxhole critique salvo’d across enemy lines by Chiasson in the Times, Pohl has always been fair-handed to poets and writers from a vast array of aesthetic positions. Here’s just a snippet from his most recent column, "Will Radovan Karadzic's poetry be admitted as evidence?”: “Before Karadzic was a demagogic, ultra-nationalist Serbian politician, he was a "self-romanticizing macho fantasist" poet whose extreme religious ultra nationalism and "poet-warrior" stance gave him some cachet in the literary world. Prior to and immediately after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, he attended several international writers' conferences, where he was introduced as "an important anti-Bolshevist voice…” In 2005, New Hampshire based poet Jay Surdukowski--who is also a practicing attorney and scholar in the field of international law--published a legal brief entitled "Is Poetry a War Crime? Reckoning for Radovan Karadzic the Poet Warrior" in the Michigan Journal of International Law. Now that Karadzic is in custody, much attention has been directed to the brief.” Pohl’s article, as always, introduces his newspaper and online readers to unique materials that are unafraid to link the poetic, the political, the legal, the cultural, the moral… I hope my hometown newspaper realizes what a gem they have in R. D. Pohl.
4.) Finally, I want to add a few words about a fantastic new collection just out from Salt Publishing in the UK, Jill McDonough’s Habeas Corpus. A collection of fifty sonnets, each detailing a public execution here in the USA, Habeas Corpus is a stark and startling reminder of just one unfortunate chapter in our democratic history. From the opening “Early 1608: George Kendall” to the closing “May 13, 2005: Michael Ross” (and with everyone from Nat Turner to John Brown to Leon Czolgsz, Sacco & Vanzetti, the Rosenbergs, and Timothy McVeigh in between), McDonough’s collection frames USAmerican history from the perspective of the about-to-be-executed. In closing, here’s one sample sonnet, “January 31, 1945: Private Eddie D. Slovik”:
Twelve riflemen with loaded rifles, lined
across from Private Slovik. One of the guns
is loaded with blanks, but they all take aim to find
him in their sights, blindfolded, shocked in the sun.
The priest has pinned a target to his chest.
Deserter. Coward. He’d written his C.O.
that he was left behind in France, confessed
I’LL RUN AWAY AGAIN IF I HAVE TO GO
OUT THEIR. The men he deserted thought he’d get
let off with prison time, dishonor. When
the twelve heard they’d been picked they never thought
they’d really kill him; they hadn’t killed their own
since ’64, but in ’45 they’d start:
a firing squad, too stunned to hit his heart.
Mark Nowak is the author of Revenants, Shut Up Shut Down (afterword by Amiri Baraka), and Coal Mountain Elementary (2009), all from Coffee House Press. His writings on new labor poetics have recently appeared in The Progressive, Virginia Quarterly Review, American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics (Wesleyan...